One of the unhoused residents of Lot 27 prepares for her next move.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Coast Life

Santa Cruz tells Food Not Bombs it’s time to go: Lot 27 being cleared by city to make room for construction

Homelessness advocate Keith McHenry said “it’s an insane time” for the city to try to evict his group and the homeless campers who have used the parking lot as safe harbor. The city says a construction project will begin and it’s no longer safe.

As an underground water line construction project progresses through downtown Santa Cruz, a homeless encampment and an advocacy group looking after that population will be required to vacate in quick fashion — something one activist calls an example of the city’s “psychological warfare” against the unhoused.

Last Friday afternoon, Santa Cruz police officers posted vacate fliers at the city-owned Lot 27 on Front and Laurel streets, directed toward both the unhoused dwellers on and surrounding the lot and the food distribution organization Food Not Bombs.

According to the city, the organization has been allowed to serve meals to the unhoused and been supported by the city in that regard but by placing private property — two shipping containers — on the public lot, the organization has taken over city property illegally.

The city is requiring the parcel to be vacated by Tuesday at 2 p.m., due to construction by the Pure Water Soquel Project, which is scheduled to begin on Jan. 14.

Moving had already begun from Lot 27 on Monday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Homelessness Response Manager Larry Imwalle said that while the notice given was short, the project is on a timeline and the city wants to ensure safety for the dwellers.

City Communications Manager Elizabeth Smith told Lookout that, despite the outcry from some community members and advocates, the move is “not a threat nor is it fiction.” Some longtime Lot 27 dwellers say previous vacate postings, including one from October 2020, weren’t followed up with action.

“This is required to occur for this much-needed water infrastructure to continue and for the safety of people in the area while it is happening,” she said.

This is required to occur for this much-needed water infrastructure to continue and for the safety of people in the area while it is happening.

— Elizabeth Smith

Imwalle agreed, saying the lot would soon be a “heavy construction site” and would not be safe. Since Friday, city outreach staff have connected with the site’s occupants — inhabiting approximately 17 tents on and around the lot — to inform them of their options, including space at the Benchlands camp in San Lorenzo Park. Staff was also on site Monday to help people move their belongings and set up new encampments.

Food Not Bombs co-founder Keith McHenry expressed his frustration and disappointment in the city’s actions, having used the site over the last 667 days — since the start of the pandemic — to provide food to nearly 400 unhoused individuals daily. McHenry will have to move not only his operations to another site, but will also need to move two shipping containers that hold the group’s equipment.

A packed-up resident watches from the side of Lot 27 on Monday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“You would think that there would be some sense of obligation to contact us, but they don’t do that and they never have,” he said. “They’ve kind of ambushed us with this…it’s an insane time to try to evict us.”

McHenry is further discouraged by the city’s recommendation for dwellers to go to the Benchlands, following the Dec. 13 storm and resulting flooding in certain areas. The space would be completely unworkable for his services, he said, leading McHenry to feel the city is “dishonest” and “disrespectful” toward the services he provides and toward the unhoused.

This is psychological warfare from people who basically have no idea what’s going on.

— Keith McHenry

“This is psychological warfare from people who basically have no idea what’s going on,” he said.

One of the lot’s dwellers, Ryan, told Lookout Monday that he had “no idea” where he’d go next. While McHenry and Food Not Bombs said there will be a protest against the eviction on Tuesday afternoon, Ryan isn’t sure that will materialize or make much difference if it does.

Food Not Bombs volunteer Ryan wonder how the two giant storage containers will get moved.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“I’m not too surprised that they’re shutting us down…it’s not a good place to be, as far as people go,” he said. “I know they’ve got the spots homeless people can go to — I’m glad they have that, to keep our city a little more clean.”

Ryan, who volunteers with Food Not Bombs, is concerned about how the group’s shipping containers will be moved before the Tuesday deadline: “That’s probably going to be the hardest part, just trying to find a place to put those things.”

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Both Imwalle and Smith reiterated that safety is the first priority for city officials, and the city is continuing to expand upcoming efforts in shelter capacity. A transitional community camp at 1220 River Street opened on Jan. 6 with 10 residents, with the expectation of up to 30 once the site is fully operational. Smith told Lookout on Monday that one person from Lot 27 has already chosen to move to 1220 River.